Somalia has re-entered the international spotlight in recent weeks amidst growing alarm over a new, active Islamic State (IS) presence in East Africa. In an official statement circulated on social media, the group claimed responsibility for the detonation of a bomb (an IED) in the outskirts of Mogadishu, allegedly marking its first Somali-based attack. While independent verification is ongoing, some claim that this may mark a significant juncture for regional stability. Commentators have not only alluded to a growth in local IS sympathies but have raised concerns over the prospect of rifts within local Jihadism that could precipitate a new wave of violence.
Historically, IS has struggled to find traction in Somalia, in contrast to its progress elsewhere on the continent. Having integrated a broad constellation of African franchises, ranging from the Nigerian based Boko Haram to Ansar Beit al Maqdis in the Sinai, and establishing a series of enclaves along the Libyan coast, the group has efficiently co-opted local insurgencies and expanded its global footprint. However, this momentum seems to have stalled with al-Shabaab. Despite courting Sheikh Abu Ubaidah, IS has been consistently repudiated by Shabaab’s media branch, al Kataib, which continues to question the Caliphate’s legitimacy and long term viability. Instead the group moved aggressively to monopolise Jihadism in East Africa, reaffirming its affiliation with al-Qaeda and preemptively suppressing any dissent through a series of internal purges. Indeed, after launching a relatively successful resurgence throughout the Somali hinterland over the course of 2015, Shabaab seemed to have re-consolidated its domestic position.
However, the Mogadishu bomb attack claimed by IS has somewhat challenged these assumptions, indicating a new geo-strategic reality beyond the Shabaab-centric orthodoxy where new actors are becoming increasingly active. This has been compounded by a number of splinter groups recently seceding from, and now competing against, the parent insurgency. Contingents led by British-Somali Abdul Nadir Mumin, now operating in Galdung, and a new transnational amalgam calling itself Jahba East Africa, have started siphoning local support from Shabaab denouncing it as a “psychological and physical prison”.
Reports have also surfaced describing possible linkages between IS and planned biological attacks in Kenya, suggesting the group may be experiencing a local resurgence. IS seems to appeal to disenchanted militias from Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and these new affiliates are not only cultivating a broader IS constituency across East Africa but re-conceptualising regional Jihad as a multipolar struggle. This therefore raises important questions as to how an increasingly diverse insurgency will impact AMISOM (the African Union Mission in Somalia) and international development efforts, as well as the degree to which al Shabaab may become embroiled in internecine conflict and the implications such a confrontation may have for the broader competition between IS and al Qaeda.
Nevertheless, while there are concerns that need to be addressed, it can also be argued these are relatively superficial issues with a tendency to detract from the key challenges now facing Somalia and East Africa. Aside from the fact that the rumours of a possible biological attack in Kenya remain unverified, and AMISOM has dismissed any IS involvement in the Mogadishu bombing, the broader effort to map shifting allegiances between various militants has limited utility. As Bronwyn Bruton, the deputy director of the African Center at the Atlantic Council aptly suggests the “relationships (between Jihadist groups) are fluid and not all that meaningful from an operational standpoint”. While the top leadership may be ideologically invested in particular factions, the affiliation of individual fighters is largely determined by “who (is) paying them that day”.
This may seem like a sweeping generalisation, but these are transient dynamics that are largely defined by small differences in politics, personality and economic opportunity. In reality the threat of IS and al Shabaab originate from the same drivers. The international community should therefore focus on delivering comprehensive solutions to address the underlying causes of radicalisation, rather than analysing nominal differences between the radical actors themselves.